I Didn’t Really Want to Go

Even though I didn’t really want to go, I attended a full day session this week simply because I trusted and liked the woman who invited me as well as the facilitator who would be designing the process. The intent of the session was to bring together a number of organizations and individuals who were knowledgeable about board governance and have them help design a series of modules that would be made available for self-directed learning for board members of service and utility boards and community non-profit organizations.

While board governance is important, and I’ve been lucky to have garnered a fair bit of knowledge about it over the years, the truth is that it isn’t a topic about which I am truly passionate. Regardless, I have to say I truly enjoyed the day. That was due in large part to the host organization being committed to working collaboratively in order to avoid reinventing the wheel. This is not always the case as in the past I have experienced organizations that despite often good intentions, talked collaboration but had a tough time walking their talk. 

To better understand why it can be challenging, The International Association of Public Participation has developed a spectrum that illustrates five different levels of public participation and shows how each type garners different results. It is an excellent model for determining the most suitable types of engagement in order to effectively facilitate and manage participation.

There really is no right or wrong choice among the five levels described in the spectrum as it is simply a case of determining how much power and control the host government or organization wants to share.The process is then designed accordingly.

Public participation is an essential part of encouraging change and ensuring community and other stakeholders have ownership of a direction, course of action or decision, and having it implemented. The more control stakeholders have, the more likely they are to support it being put into place. What’s most important is being clear and transparent about the level of participation you are promising and the power that is or isn’t intended to be devolved.

The five levels begin with “inform” which provides the least power and also the least potential for public impact. It sends the message that “we will keep you informed”. The next levels are “consult”, “involve, and “collaborate. The one at the far end of the continuum and the one providing the most public impact is “empower”. This clearly conveys to stakeholders that “we will implement what you decide”.

The session I attended this week was pretty close to empowering those in the room by landing at the fourth or “collaborate” level. We worked together to design the curriculum for board governance and were assured they were looking to us for advice and direction, and would incorporate our recommendations into the curriculum to the maximum extent possible.

So why is it important to understand these different levels of participation? Community challenges are complex these days and often require the rich thinking that is the result of collaboration. We all need to be able to implement facilitative strategies that will engage and empower stakeholders. Effective facilitation makes it easier for stakeholders to do their best thinking because they are guided through a process that enables them to define and reach their goals.

The basis of effective facilitation reflects a belief that people are intelligent, capable, and want to do the right thing, many heads are better than one, each person’s opinion is of equal value, people commit to ideas and plans when they are part of the development process, and people can, and will, act responsibly when offered true accountability for their decisions.

Truth be told working collaboratively on the board governance learning modules made for a long day that involved very hard work for everyone involved. However, there is no doubt the curriculum will be richer and more meaningful as a result. But perhaps even more important is that because we were all involved in its design we will all become ambassadors for the training module and promote its use among our respective stakeholders. The scenario would have been much different had it simply been handed to us.

Posted on 09-06-10

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